Better Policing in Albuquerque? Not Quite Yet!


“If any other group of individuals were acting the way [the Albuquerque Police Department] has allegedly been acting, some of us in law enforcement might refer to them as a continuing criminal enterprise and/or engaged in the act of racketeering…” — Former Albuquerque D.A. Kari Brandenburg

[The national focus on the Albuquerque Police Department began when this video was posted on YouTube. Currently, this video has been seen by 1.2 million times. It portrays the questionable shooting of a homeless man in a city dump site.]

I don’t know if we can use Albuquerque as a case study, but it certainly appears to have all the elements that plague police improvement. The following is a recent post in part by

“District Attorney Kari Brandenburg is done with Albuquerque. More to the point, she’s decided not to seek re-election because she’s especially done with the city’s police force. On her way out the door, Brandenburg — who found herself locked out by the PD after bringing murder charges against two officers for shooting a homeless man — is letting the Department of Justice knows its work with the PD isn’t done yet.

“In early 2014, the DOJ released its report on the Albuquerque Police Department. In it were descriptions of the department’s indiscriminate, unchecked uses of force.

“’Our investigation looked at officer-involved shootings that resulted in fatalities from 2009 to 2012 and found that a majority of them were unreasonable and violated the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. We found that officers used deadly force against people who did not pose an immediate threat of death or serious harm to officers or others, and against people who posed a threat only to themselves. In fact, sometimes it was the conduct of the officers themselves that heightened the danger and escalated the need to use force… [W]e found that encounters between police officers and persons with mental illness or in crisis too frequently resulted in a use of force or a higher level of force than necessary…’

“Former DA Brandenburg makes note of these recent allegations in her angry letter [PDF] to the DOJ. But the primary focus of her letter is the toxic Albuquerque police culture, which has turned these public servants into an unaccountable mess.

“Since the Settlement Agreement was reached between APD and the Department of Justice, we have seen little progress… [B]ehind the scene reality was that APD has almost no appetite for correcting behavior that violates existing policy… Throughout the monitoring process, APD has failed to comply and meet agreed upon standards and measures. In fact, their performance can accurately be characterized as grossly noncompliant…’

“Brandenburg sums this up for the DOJ’s convenience, using terms it understands.

“’Frankly, if any other group of individuals were acting the way APD has allegedly been acting, some of us in law enforcement might refer to them as a continuing criminal enterprise and/or engaged in the act of racketeering…’

“Since 2010, the APD has shot more members of the public than the NYPD despite policing a population sixteen times smaller. And it’s done this largely without repercussion, thanks to a DA’s office that generally considered itself to be working for cops, rather than working for the public…

“’One of the major areas of concern are the number of officer involved shootings and instances of unreasonable use of force by APD. In all fairness, our office has been part of that controversy, as we declined to criminally prosecute any officer involved in an officer involved shooting until January 2015.’

“Of course, Brandenburg now knows from firsthand experience why cops tend to go uncharged in incidents like these. No one wants to bite the hand that feeds it prosecutions, especially not when the bitten entity can bite back just as hard. If the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division is truly serious about fixing American policing, it will need to take a trip back to Albuquerque and start throwing its federal weight around.”

The following is a commentary on the problem of police-prosecutor relations and improving police services and reducing uses of force. The writer is a long-term friend, police expert, and colleague:

“This is one of the biggest nuts to crack — the usual unwillingness of prosecutors to prosecute police officers clearly guilty of criminal violations because of their fear of retaliation by the police.  I can identify with this prosecutor who tried out of her sincere and professional commitment — and was overwhelmed.  I admire her decision to resign and go public with full disclosure.  The conflict shows up over and over again.

“Institutionally and systemically, it is not surprising.  The prosecutor heavily depends on the police.  (I wish some young practitioners or academics would take this one on as a problem in need of a solution.)  The major error is to depend so heavily on criminal prosecutions as the vehicle to control police conduct. In the public’s eye, it is the most preferred means for ‘making things right’ — the officer’s actions rise to the level that warrants his/her serving time – ‘an eye for an eye.’  And, as a by-product, it will be a deterrent to similar conduct in the future.   But it just isn’t going to work that way in most cases.

“Some prosecutors, like the one in Baltimore, ‘kicked the can down road’ at the height of the tension in that city, knowing full well — I sense — that there was not enough evidence to convict. Or a prosecutor can do something short of pressing a strong case. That game is played very often. Relieve the pressure when it is greatest, and benefit from keeping relationships with the police in a workable state with an acquittal when things quiet down.

“But even if there is a case, it is often impossible for a highly motivated prosecutor who ignores police oppositions and presents a strong case to get a jury to convict — which raises the next point. Citizens serving on juries give police the benefit of the benefit; they are reluctant to convict a police officer.

“My off-hand response to this dilemma is not to lean so heavily on criminal prosecutions as the primary means of control of police abuse. It just frustrates the effort to seek both justice and effective control. Indeed, I’m almost prepared to see an individual police officer be freed of a criminal conviction in favor of holding the agency and city responsible. Amazing how often the actual outcome is for the police officer to be freed of criminal prosecution, but dismissed from his/her job.

“An alternative institutional arrangement that would more likely lead to improvement in the quality of policing might lean more heavily on large civil settlements. But as civil actions now work, they don’t seem to have much impact. Cities pay out fantastic amounts, and that doesn’t seem to accomplish much in correcting police policies and practices.  The impact is on the city treasury and not the police department.  This begs for a different forum other than the criminal process (requiring the involvement of the prosecutor) and a form of sanction that affects not just the municipality and police management, but that ultimately affects the officers COLLECTIVELY.  If officers felt a need to prevent their fellow officers from engaging in practices that result in collective punishment, that might get closer to designing an appropriate system.  Not sure what form collective punishment might take, or whether that is realistic.

“Just some odd and assorted thinking on a major problem to which we’ve not devoted enough attention.  I am convinced that seeking criminal prosecutions is a wasteful investment of time and energy — morally attractive, but often reinforcing of the police culture when those efforts fail and, therefore, ultimately ineffective.  What sayeth thou?”

My response:

“I totally agree, my friend. I wonder if the National Trans Safety Board (NTSB) approach to airline crashes (as Michael Bell is advocating might be a way out — “no blame, no shame — let’s just fix the problem”? Along these lines are the use of “Sentinel Events’ from the medical field. Somewhere, some way there needs to be a solution. I am intrigued about the idea that police could use the method of Problem-Oriented Policing (POP) to reduce officer involved shootings!

“But I, too, am afraid that given the present situation there is not much will to do this nor will the feds be able to play as active a role as they did in the past. It will take courageous local leaders to continue to press for police reform!”

  • In the meantime, police accountability and efforts to reduce uses of deadly force remain somewhat in limbo.

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